Edinburgh’s St James Quarter: With attractions like virtual grouse shooting, this could be just the thing for Capital – John McLellan

The St James Quarter, which includes a food hall of Scottish produce which can be cooked to order, should help Edinburgh recover from the Covid crisis, writes John McLellan.

The St James Quarter is taking shape at the east end of Princes Street
The St James Quarter is taking shape at the east end of Princes Street

The St James Quarter building site is not a place to work if you suffer from vertigo, at every turn a lattice of scaffolding prevents the army of construction workers from plunging off the open floors or down dizzying stairwells to catastrophic injuries or worse. Safety is paramount.

“You! Yes you! Get back on the other side,” shouted Keith, the grizzly Australian site director at the worker spotted across the other side of a 50ft chasm. There he was, quite nonchalant with spanner in hand, standing on the wrong side of a barrier on the edge of a 100ft drop.

“Where’s your harness?” The worker looked up and optimistically tugged at the strapping around his overalls. “But it’s not attached to anything,” he bellowed. “Get back on the other side . . . No, go under the pole. UNDER!”

The worker safely back on the right side of the pole to rejoin a colleague, we continued our tour of the gargantuan shopping and leisure complex now nearing completion at the east end of Princes Street. Turning away to raise an eyebrow at Project Director Tim Kelly, he clicked on his walkie-talkie and pinpointed the location to another manager. “Stand those two blokes down,” he said calmly.

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With spectacular views from the top floors and through the limestone-clad canyons cutting throughout this extraordinary new district, safety breaches are instant disciplinary matters. Apart from avoiding human tragedy, with the opening already pushed back to April after all building in Scotland was suspended at the height of the Covid-19 outbreak – the only place in Europe to hibernate construction – serious accidents would be seriously bad for business.

And right now in Edinburgh, there is no bigger business than the St James Quarter; a £1bn investment by US pension fund Nuveen, 80 shops providing over a fifth of all Edinburgh’s entire retail space, 30 new restaurants and bars, a cinema, a 13-storey hotel with 244 rooms, a 75-room aparthotel and 152 private apartments.

The current city council regime might not like it, but the three-level basement with parking for 1,500 cars could provide the solution, if not the replacement revenue, for the proposed parking ban on George Street.

The construction statistics too are on an epic scale: 38,000 individual pieces of steel, 111,000 square metres of metal decking, 26,000 square metres of roof, 339 columns built around 11 concrete cores and over 800 new foundation piles.

The cluster of cranes towering over Leith Walk has only hinted at the drama inside, or the impact on the future of Edinburgh city centre because what is being created is not just a glorified shopping mall but retail theatre where performance and display are magnets to draw in people from across the Central Belt for an experience not available elsewhere.

A new food hall will allow people to not only buy fresh Scottish produce, but have it cooked for them there and then. There will be virtual grouse shooting and deer-stalking for a tourism market about which even now Edinburgh Council’s administration remains decidedly lukewarm.

It has not been master-planned this way, but with Multrees Walk and the transformation of the old banks and finance houses in and around St Andrew Square, the East End will be a centre of gravity not known since the days when Jenner’s and Forsyth’s were in their pomp. Even that doesn’t get close because the Bridges and West End were counter-balances; as of next April, all roads will lead to St James.

And now peace has broken out with the Dunard Concert Hall’s backers, a modern music venue will add to the attractions. With costs said to have doubled to an unaffordable £90m compromise was reached and the scale reduced, so from angry opposition going all the way to the Court of Session, the St James team is now keen to help.

The pandemic’s effects on the city will be felt for years, with a service-based economy which is finding maybe it wasn’t so vital for everyone to be in the office for over 40 hours a week, and there is the potential for more disruption depending on how the Brexit cards fall.

With two million fewer visitors in August than last year and Scottish retail sales down over £2bn, Edinburgh needs some good news right now and like the bronze spiral about to pierce the city skyline, the St James Quarter is an opportunity for Edinburgh to demonstrate it’s open for business and has something new to offer.

Safety on site now will help safeguard the city’s future economy. Edinburgh needs it to open on time.

A view I can only describe

Diners at Harvey Nicks’ top floor restaurant marvel at the spectacular view across to Edinburgh Castle, but it doesn’t get close to the panorama which the open-air bar crowning the St James Quarter’s W Hotel will provide.

Walking the circuit just beneath the top of the Walnut Whip, to the south-east the outlook is on a level with the Calton Hill Observatory with the Crags looming behind and to the south-west it’s just above the basket hilt of the Balmoral Hotel tower and almost on a level with the Castle Rock. Directly West, you look down on Viscount Melville on his column towards the elegance of West Register House.

The pictures will be stunning, and don’t the W Hotel operators know it. Publishing any photos of the view is currently banned.

Who’s winning the War of the Cones?

Back to the War of the Cones, will sense prevail and the deeply unpopular road changes in East Craigs and Braid Road be changed to any degree?

Perhaps not, especially as monitoring is being done with Sustrans, the government-backed charity which promotes active travel, but even they must see the absolute insanity of siting a disabled car parking space in the middle of Pentland Terrace, separated from the pavement by a cycle lane.

If SNP supporters now saying they won’t vote for the party at council elections doesn’t make them think twice, nothing will. But it really has come to something when cyclists are given priority over disabled people and somebody really needs to get a grip of reality inside the council administration.

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